Leadville or Bust (Part Two)

‘It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.’ – Wilbur Wright

Getting up this morning I hoped that things would be better. The forecast for today was better, but you never know what’s going to happen in the mountains. I went down to get some breakfast at the guest house and was greeted by a nice blue sky. Definitely a step in the right direction. A couple eggs and a sausage patty later, it was off to the airport.

Every time I’ve been to Colorado I’ve been surprised by the height of the mountains. Then, a day or two later, I’ve been surprised again when the clouds covering the real mountains dissipate and I can see beyond the foothills that I had been thinking were the mountains. It’s funny, I think I’ve done this three times now. This trip was no exception. I drove to the airport this morning and saw how the mountains I had been admiring yesterday were now dwarfed by their much larger brothers. A bit of perspective, the foothills I was admiring are seven or eight thousand feet above sea level. That’s a good three thousand feet above the airport out of which we flew. Three thousand feet is two Sears Towers stacked on top of each other.

The real mountains peak out another six thousand feet above the foothills. That’s four more Sears Towers stacked on top of the two we already had.

And that was what we intended the fly over.

As pilot in command I did a pre-flight on the plane before we bothered to drag it out of the hanger. Everything seemed to be in place, and I verified the airplane logs yesterday, so it looks like we’re going to go fly. A quick push over the rail that the hanger doors glide on and N370SP is looking pretty in the bright sun.

We load things up. Standard items: Headset, kneeboard, sections, terminal area chart, video camera, mobile phone, wallet. Mountain items: PLB, boots, jackets, energy bars.

Working through the run-up (testing out the running airplane for any issues that you wouldn’t want to fly with) I get my first taste of doing something different. In Chicago we’re approximately a sea level. When we do run-ups one of the things we do is switch between magnetos (little generators that produce the power for the spark plugs) to make sure that both sets are working as expected. In Boulder we had to first set the lean the engine for the airport altitude. Every gasoline powered engine works by exploding a mix of gas and air in a cylinder. The explosion pushes a piston down and that reciprocating motion is turned into a rotating motion to spin the prop. To get the mix right we run the engine at full power and gradually reduce the amount of fuel being injected until the RPMs peak and start to reduce a bit. Once we see the reduction it’s just a quick turn clockwise to add a bit more fuel and we’ve got our mix. Easy peasy.

Today we had 40 gallons of fuel onboard, a bit more than I usually have in this kind of plane. But as I push full throttle and start our takeoff roll, it quickly becomes apparent that the difference in performance is a lot more than just the extra 30 pounds of fuel in the wings. The Boulder airport only has one runway, but it’s quite long. It wasn’t a problem to get in the air, but it did take about 50% more pavement than Chicago to get there.

Once in the air, we started flying our flight plan. Off to the left was Denver. It was a bit hazy though. Not really sure why, the rest of the air seemed quite clear. We headed south until we got down to Shaffers Crossing and then started to head into the meat of the mountains.

I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t nervous. At this point we’re only about 15 minutes into the flight, we’re already higher than I’ve ever flow and we just turned west to face mountains that tower above our flight level. I found I was giving myself a bit of a pep talk, “Just take things bite by bite, Rich. It’s not going to help you fly the plane now if your mind is too focused on 15 minutes down the line.”

We headed uphill for a while and then got in position to go through Kenosha Pass. Cruising at 12,500 feet we were above almost everything, and the valley floor was over 2,000 feet below us. Things got a bit bumpy. The winds aloft get pretty mixed up as they go over various ranges with peaks of differing heights.

Once through Kenosha Pass things smoothed out a lot and we turned south again and flew for about 15 minutes over South Park. Yes, that South Park. 15 minutes of relaxed flying was a good break and we got ready for the next mountain range.

We had discussed during the pre-flight the possibility of going further south rather than taking Weston Pass. It’s a narrow pass, with high mountains on each side. Today the winds were pretty much straight down the pass, so we gave it a shot. Because of the well aligned winds we didn’t get bounced around too much and it was slightly easier flying than Kenosha Pass. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case on most days, but today things worked out in our favor.

Through the pass we were in the valley in which Leadville resides. We came through at about 13,000 feet so needed to lose a couple thousand to get down to pattern altitude at 11,000. Pilots in the midwest reading this will love that statement, so lets repeat it. Pattern altitude is 11,000 feet. For non-pilots, the perspective here is that prior to making this trip the highest I had ever flown was 6,500. Too fun!

Spinning around and on short final I noticed a bit of a crosswind and corrected. I was a little fast on final, but the runway is quite long so a little patience was all that was necessary to return to earth.

The FBO has a cool little feature, they’ll print you out a certificate of accomplishment for having successfully landed there. Notable as the highest airport in North America I was happy to indulge my inner winner and get evidence of the fact for my home office. I also managed to help out the local economy a little bit by picking up a t-shirt and hoodie. What can I say, they know their target audience.

Leaving Leadville it was another climbing 360 to gain enough altitude to clear the rocks, a short flight to McElroy for another high altitude landing and takeoff and then we were headed back to Boulder.

Just one more final hurdle, and it was a big one.

Our last pass was Rollins Pass. This is a high one. 11,671 feet. So we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. We finally got up to about 13,500 feet, a comfortable buffer. Flying in the mountains is all about contingency plans, so we flew down to Winter Park and approached Rollins Pass at a 45 degree angle. If the winds weren’t favorable or it turned out we didn’t have enough altitude, this angle positioned us such that we would have much less of a turn to complete to turn away from the pass and be able to fly downhill to safety.

Closer and closer we came and I got the best illustration yet of something I had read about. The author had mentioned that a good thing to keep an eye out for was the terrain behind the mountain you are trying to get over. If you are seeing more and more terrain then you are on course to clear the mountain. If you are seeing less and less then you should turn around.

We kept seeing more and it was really amazing to see the foothills spread out before us as we crested the pass. These mountains, that had been so intimidating only a couple hours prior, now looked tiny and easy to manage from our 13,500 window on the world.

And that, I suppose as much as anything, was the goal of the trip.

Posted in Uncategorized

In a Foreign Land

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. ~ Dorothy Gale


During our global travels, we have always made an attempt to learn small words and phrases in the language of the country we are visiting. Not only do these small words help us navigate around the country during our stay, but it offers a kinship with the natives that we’ve done our homework and attempt to fit in without expecting them to speak English for us. My rule of thumb is to say hello in their language and then say hello in English. This sequence came from an early interaction with a shopkeeper in Poland who thought I spoke the language since I had said ‘good morning’ in Polish. She then prattled off a sentence or two in Polish thinking I was fluent. With a smile, I said, in Polish, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish’. Her quizzical look turned to a smile and a laugh when she realized what was happening. She then switched to a few English words she knew and with much nodding and smiling I purchased a few souvenirs. As I left, I looked at her, waved and said good bye in Polish and she said good bye in English. Nice.

As much as I would like it to, the world of aviation terminology doesn’t quite fit into this nice little package for me. Due to it’s military origins, the aviation language is built on the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet and acronyms. Words such as NOTAMS, FAA, ICAO, IFR, VFR and even TOMATOFLAMES, meaning:
Oil pressure
Manifold pressure
Temperature sensor (liquid-cooled)
Oil temperature (air cooled)
Fuel gauge
Landing gear position
Airspeed indicator
Magnetic compass
Seat belts

,are used. Even airport locations are abbreviated. We all know: LAX, ORD, JFK and BMI.

As the wife of a pilot, I am thankful for the ease of use of these terms and know that it is easier to memorize long lists of items in this way. If you’ve ever been in a tense flight situation, these tools make communication as well as action more rapid when speed and decision making can be of the utmost importance. However, at the flying club christmas party, I didn’t see the ease or quickness in any of these terms. Being a pilot’s wife and glorified map holder, I gazed blankly while sipping my beer and nodding my head while others buzzed off acronym after acronym in a frenzied state while relaying their latest flying exploits. ‘OMG, the BFAs were MIA and then I couldn’t land due to the QETMS and HRRs! I was ROFLMFAO!’ *sigh*

With the myriad of terms and abbreviations, I don’t think I stand a chance in any aviation based conversation, but have managed to learn a few. I suppose it is like learning any other language. Start small, use it every day, learn the important stuff and the rest will come as you go. I love the challenge of visiting a foreign land and people, so why should this be any different? It’s like taking a trip without the hassel and expense, right? If only there was a little Polish shopkeeper at the next flying club christmas party to smile, wave and say ‘good bye’.

Posted in Uncategorized

Leadville or Bust (Part One)

‘Patience and diligence, like faith, remove mountains.’ – William Penn

Yesterday was a bust. Having flown to Denver after work, driven an hour to Boulder and finally gotten some sleep I was up at 6 to talk with my flight instructor about flying. We checked out the current conditions. We looked at the forecast. Both confirmed what we already knew. No flight.

The flight into the mountains was the biggest reason I went to Colorado. I can do book work and explore the world with hanger flying without having to physically transport myself to Colorado. The other reason for coming out was to spend a bit of time with my instructor reviewing flight plans for the western air tour and getting his advice on the route. He liked our conservative approach. He liked the plans I had laid out for some of the more interesting parts of the flight. I think I might even have sold him on the benefits of a PLB.

The best part was after we did the ground school. Turns out this flight school just got a state of the art simulator at the beginning of the year. Since we were stuck sobre el terreno, the sim looked like a pretty good option. It turned out better than expected.

The crew at Specialty Flight and, in particular, my instructor were still getting used to the system. This resulted in some fun and games as we figured out how to tell the sim where in the world we wanted to fly. Our attempts to place the plane relative to an airport ended up being futile, but I’m sure they’ll get that sorted out. As a work around we discovered that we could position relative to a navaid without any trouble. Out came the sectionals and off we went on a virtual tour of a couple of the western air tour flights.

First off was West Yellowstone. We flew the approach that I had sketched out (the magenta line is the route that we’re planning to fly in June). Even in a sim, with the slightly different force feedback you get, it wasn’t too hard to keep things on the rails and fly a successful approach. My instructor suggested that we do a go-around (aborting the landing) on that approach so I could get a feel for how the plane would (or, more to the point, wouldn’t) perform.

A good pilot is always learning, so, even though I can’t imagine putting myself in a position where this would happen, I asked him to take us into instrument conditions on the next approach. It was kind of fun as he figured out the sim and we went from sunny, to rainy, to cloudy, to sunny, to thunderstorm and then, as requested, to IFR. When you are flying visual rules the requirement is to be able to see the ground or the sun (it’s legal to be above the clouds, as long as you aren’t in them) and have some clearance laterally. One of the biggest causes of airplane crashes is VFR pilots stumbling into IFR conditions (a situation that perhaps contributed to JFK, Jr. spiraling in controlled flight till he hit the ground). Doing this in a sim was a great chance for some practice.

On final (straight into the runway) with hills to the left and a bit of a gap on the right, the view suddenly went opaque. Having a good mental image of the terrain, a climbing turn to the right seemed like the right call. This might not always be the right thing to do. A climbing turn in the midwest might drive your plane further into the cloud ceiling into which you just accidentally flew. You won’t hit the ground, but you also might not get back into the VMC (visual meteorological conditions) you just left behind. More often a level 180 degree turn is the right answer. But in the mountains around Yellowstone, a climbing turn seemed like a better bet. Better to remain in the clouds, than hit the terrain. A standard rate turn (360 degrees in two minutes) turned us 180 degrees in about a minute and suddenly (ok, really because my instructor cleared the skies) everything was brilliant.

Next we repositioned near the Grand Canyon. This won’t be quite as challenging an approach. The Colorado Plateau is just that, a plateau. The airport there is at 6,609 feet. So, it’s kind of high, but there isn’t really anything to run into. The most significant nearby feature is a 277 mile ditch. If you miss the airport and go down in the canyon, well, you really haven’t done your job.

So, why fly there? The bulk of the area is a no-flight zone to protect the canyon (well, really, the serenity of the visitors) from airplanes. What I wanted to do was gain some perspective on what the visual cues would be when flying over the canyon. If the sim is anything like real life, we should be all set. There is a cloven hoof of a feature directly below the flight line that was easily recognizable in the sim. From there you make a right turn and fly over the canyon to the longest point you can find, or a 10 degree bearing if you want to crutch yourself with the instruments in your cockpit.

The sim was great fun, but it wasn’t what I came here for, so I left disappointed. I like this area, but spending two days away from home to fly in a simulator wasn’t the plan.

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad News In Colorado

‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ – Jack Swigert


Leaving Denver the plane was running fine and the skies were beautiful. Destination, Leadville.

First we’re going to head toward Rollinsville. This town is barely a town. It’s really more of a cluster of houses at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. It’s early in the morning, so conditions are favorable. Light winds from the west, but nothing that our trusty Cessna can’t overcome. Turning right at Rollinsville the transition from foothills to the fourteeners quickly takes place. The Rockies are a majestic stretch of mountains, itself part of a much larger mountain range that extends from Alaska down to the tip of South America in ChilĂ©.

Heading uphill for a while, the scenery is simply spectacular. The rocks rise from the ground like spires from a cathedral. Many of these mountains have snow year around, but since it’s early in May nearly everything above 10,000 feet still has abundant snow. Pointing toward Rollins Pass it’s time to start looking for a 12,000 foot peak on the left and a series of small lakes and steep mountains on the right.

Positively identifying Corona and Pumphouse lakes, a turn is made to the northwest when a sputtering noise is heard. This being a training flight it seems likely the CFI, Tim, is doing an engine failure test, but the look on his face and command “I have the controls” quickly dispels that possibility.

Tim works through the checklist (ABCDs):

A: Airspeed. Adjust the airspeed for the best speed. This is the speed that will get you furthest from where your engine (which just failed completely) failed.

B: Best Field. No option. The terrain here is a mix of rocks and the Roosevelt National Forest. If this thing is going down, it’s not going to be pretty.

C: Engine restart checklist. Gas to both. Mix full rich. Carb heat on. Primer in and locked. Cycle magnetos.


D: Declare an emergency. Squawk 7700. Talk on the active frequency. Switch to 121.5 if no response.

It’s deep in the mountains here and these radios are strictly line of sight, no response.

s: Secure the airplane. Fuel off. Magnetos off. Master switch off. Seatbelts on. Open door just before touchdown.

The highest of the trees scraping the bottom of the plane Tim banks to the right to hit a gap between two stands and try and let the wings take the bulk of the hit as the plane goes down. It’s still bright and sunny and the forest looks beautiful.

On the ground. Some time has past. The smell of avgas is rich in the air, but no heat is felt. Tim is badly injured, but alert. Both his legs are broken and bit of shattered bone a poking through his jeans on his right leg. He’s bloody, but there doesn’t seem to be tons of blood still flowing.

This is a tough situation. No one knows where the plane went down and it won’t be reported missing for another 2 hours when the flight plan expires and the plane hasn’t shown up in Leadville yet. Many search and rescue missions in the mountains never find the plane. That’s a chilling thought. Tim is alive, but no way is he walking out of here. Unless a search plane can be alerted, he’s toast. And that’s provided that he lives long enough, perhaps hours, perhaps days, for the search plane to come by this location.

This is the kind of situation that keeps pilots up nights. This is also why I just ordered a PLB. In a situation like that described above, you hit a button on the PLB and help is on the way. The PLB immediately begins broadcasting a signal that search and rescue can identify and hone in on using doppler signal locating. Within a couple minutes, the PLB will have acquired a GPS signal and start broadcasting your location, within a hundred meters or so, to satellites that forward it to search and rescue. The search narrowed to something the size of a football field, our friend Tim has a good shot of getting to a hospital in time to save his life and his legs.

I hope I never have to deploy it. But it seems like something worth having as an insurance policy.

Posted in Uncategorized

Mountain Training

‘I’ve learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.’ – Unknown


It’s about a month before we launch for our national park tour in June. Time to get out to Denver and do some training. As I wrote in a previous entry, this training isn’t a legal requirement, but a safety issue.

I have a customer in Broomfield, CO right by Jeffco. While I was out there a few months ago, I looked up a few flight schools and made some calls to interview the candidates. I was particularly interested in making sure that whoever I ended up with would be willing to help me get a bunch of ground school prep-work done before I got to the airport.

The first thing I did was read a couple books. The Mountain Flying Bible is a commonly recommended book on the subject. Flying the Mountains is another. At this point I’ve read them both and can say that unless you are interested in flying in mountains, you won’t find them useful. These are not the most compellingly written books in the world, but they get the information across.

Next, I had a talk with the flight instructor I’ll be flying with when I make my trip. We talked about my background, the trip we’re making in June and what we would do on the flight. The flight plan turned out to hold a pleasant surprise.

I’m attempting to become a bit more of a runner. I have been running a half marathon or more every weekend for the past month and a half and am ramping the mileage up with the goal of running an ultramarathon in September. One of the most famous ultras in the world is run at nearly 10,000 feet in Leadville, CO. Leadville is also home to the highest airport in North America at 9,927 feet. When you fly in, they print you a free certificate for having visited. When I found out that would be our destination airport for the first training flight, I got even more excited about the trip. Between the several fourteeners and the highest airport on the continent, I should be ready for the much more modest altitudes we’ll encounter on our trip.

So, in a week I’ll be in Denver. I can’t wait.

Posted in Uncategorized